About the series: In a saloon town such as San Francisco, the bartender plays a crucial role. Confessor, friend, sounding board — the man or woman behind the plank sees to it that our needs are met with elegance, grace and often wit. They see humanity at its best and most convivial, but also offer a nod and a welcome to the lonely. But what do they see when they look at us? What are the tricks of their trade? And what lessons have they learned along the way? In this new Examiner weekly feature, we talk to some of our local bartenders to find out.
The Buena Vista Cafe
2765 Hyde St., (415) 474-5044
Tired of green beer and shamrocks in the foam of our Guinness, we searched for a new way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. We promptly slapped palms to foreheads when we walked into the Buena Vista, the famous bar and restaurant that overlooks Hyde Street Pier. We dropped in to chat with Paul Nolan, who’s been pouring Irish coffees behind the bar for 29 years. At 55, he’s enjoyed peering through the bar’s large expanse of windows, watching the world do its thing while he does his. Founded in 1889, the Buena Vista sealed its fate as a San Francisco landmark when it introduced Irish coffee to the world in 1952. The staff estimates it’s served more than 33 million of the famous after-dinner drink. On Saturday, you can ring in St. Paddy’s Day with the restaurant’s esteemed staff, dining on old world Irish stew with soda bread and corned beef and cabbage.
Tell us how you got into the business of bartending. Actually, I started drinking here while I was at the University of California and in 1973 I became the doorman. I went to graduate school on the East Coast and came back to San Francisco in 1977. I was working for Hyde Corporation in Burlingame. They moved to Chicago and I was looking for a job. I knew [the Buena Vista] was looking for a bartender, so I “temporarily” took the job, only to find 29 years later … I’m still temporarily here.
So, this is the home of Irish coffee? Yes, it was developed here to how we drink it in the United States versus Ireland.
How many Irish coffees have you poured? I think 3 million is a good estimate. I thought it was 2 million and then someone worked out the math for me.
Do you drink Irish coffee? I have had a lot of Irish coffees in my day. I haven’t had a drink in four years, but I can definitely appreciate the taste of an Irish coffee.
This place is famous. You must have served your fair share of celebrities. I’m not a big moviegoer, so I don’t really recognize anyone. I was talking to Ted Danson and I didn’t even know it for five minutes. Hilary Swank was in here. Billy Joel used to come in here every time he was performing. He’d come in here with Christie Brinkley, and then his entourage, and then his new girlfriend.
What about San Francisco characters? It’s a funny thing. You have a regular group of old-timers. We have our nighttime regulars and our daytime regulars. Mary is a seasoned veteran of the Buena Vista. Herb is a day-and-night regular from Germany. He’s been coming in as long as I know him. You seepeople who started out on martinis and end up drinking non-alcoholic beer. I saw a lot of that. I have a friend from New Jersey — I would see him more than some of my regulars because he’d be stopping in here on stopovers to Japan on business.
What’s the second most popular drink you pour? The Bloody Mary. We do a huge Saturday and Sunday breakfast, so that’s why. We also do a lot of Ramos Gin Fizzes and Nutty Irishmans.
What’s the strangest proposition you’ve ever received? I can’t say that without getting in trouble.
Have you seen any good bar fights? There were a lot more in the early ’70s. Our crowd now is a lot more mature.
Why do you keep doing this job? I enjoy it. I don’t know if I could work at any other bar. This bar has such a blend of people and, of course, the regulars. Plus, look at these glass windows. You got a movie going on here all day long.
What’s your signature cocktail that you make? Brandy Milk Punch. It’s sugar, brandy, vanilla extract, milk, crushed ice and you throw it in the blender. I think it originated in Texas.
How it’s done at Buena Vista: Line up 28 glasses or so. Drop two lumps of sugar to the bottom of each glass. Fill the glass with hot coffee, but don’t stop at each one — pour it over the whole line. Grab the whiskey and pour it so it gets all the way down to the bottom of the glass, then float a nice collar of whipped cream on top.